Why Background Noise Matters
Background noise is a constant issue for people with hearing aids. It’s one of the areas in which large hearing aid manufacturers spend millions of dollars on research and development for their products. It’s not just an annoyance, though. Research shows that background noise can have an impact on the brain and affect how it receives information.
The reason that hearing aids can be so troublesome is that our brains naturally adapt to the noise level in an environment, and hearing aids disrupt the adaptation that has already taken place in the presence of hearing loss. Exposure to loud noise alters cells over long periods of time; in loud environments the auditory nerves respond and adjust in real time to heightened levels of activity.
This is relatively new research, but it explains why the seemingly minor annoyance of hearing aids, which is improving with time and new technology, can make a big difference.
The scientific process behind noise goes something like this. When ears are exposed to noise, the auditory nerve releases chemicals. These chemicals can and do run out, which is something that happens when someone is in a loud environment over a long period of time.
A recent experiment conducted by Matthew Xu-Friedman at the University of Buffalo discovered something interesting. When mice were exposed to loud noises over prolonged periods of time, their auditory nerves became more frugal in releasing the chemicals that help adapt to stimuli in the environment. Thus, they do not deplete their neurotransmitter chemicals and were able to stay in loud environments for longer periods of time without going deaf.
When the mice were placed back into quieter environments, the auditory nerves once again adapted to those conditions. It is not yet clear how hearing aids affect this process in humans who wear them, but this new research could lead to further insights.
In the meantime, there are steps you can take to deal with background noise in hearing aids. Healthy Hearing published a comprehensive article on the topic. Some of their suggestions include wearing two hearing aids instead of one if you have hearing loss in both ears, using hearing aids with digital signal processing, and using hearing aids with directional microphones.